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Comic Book Superheroes

Developing a Syllabus for a Course on Comic Book Superheroes

By Elaine M. Deering

Instructor of English, Lynn University, Boca Raton, Florida

For years, I bought our family a stylish coffee table book on Superman or Spiderman or other comic book superhero each year at Christmas time. As I paid for my purchase, I would produce my faculty ID and ask if I could get a teacher’s discount. The cashier would invariably reply that the book would have to be related to a course I was teaching, to which I would confide my desire to develop a literature course on comic book superheroes someday. Sometimes I would get a wink and a discount; if the cashier was a purist, my request would be declined.

Then, one year, my dream became a reality. Lynn University unveiled its ambitious “Dialogues of Learning,” a multi-disciplinary approach to learning in which students read classics in many subjects, revolving around a theme of either Self and Society, Belief and Reason, or Justice and Civic Life. The hidden jewel in the program was the newly instituted J term, an interlude of a fortnight in January in which students either embarked on a study tour or enrolled in a nontraditional, creative course, for academic credit. Here was my chance to fulfill my dream! Happily, I submitted a course proposal for the study of comic books as a literary genre. The course would explore the literary roots of the genre as well as study the medium as a cultural phenomenon. There would be assignments to hone students’ analytical, writing and speaking skills, and to display their technical literacy. And so, in January 2010, I rolled out a class which called for students to read comic books starring their favorite superhero.

At Lynn, competition for students to fill the J term class abounds, especially for the study tours, as insufficient advance enrollment will cancel the class and cause last-minute substitutions. Professors who stay on campus also join the scramble to sell their class by posting flyers on their office door, in the elevator, on bulletin boards. Soon the campus was abounding in colorful posters announcing classes in film making, studies of the oldest profession in the world, yoga, gambling cruises to learn higher math, immersion in French language and cuisine, and many more. A J-term fair was held in a plaza outside the Student Center to showcase the course offerings.

After posting my announcement, I received many inquiries from interested students as well as suggestions from colleagues: don’t forget the superheroes’ involvement in the war effort, be sure to look into the creators’ own use of superheroes as a secret identity, contact one of the psychology grad students who is writing a thesis on Superheroes, did you know about Obama’s historic meeting with Superman, you’ve got to check out the History Channel special.

And so, once exams were graded, I devoted most of my Christmas vacation to planning my course. Ideas had been bubbling beneath the surface for years; now it was time to convert them to reality.

For starters, I surfed through the school library online catalogue, seeking books to expand my personal library. This time I was looking for books about comic books, why we read them, why we crave them, how they influence us. After I had cut and pasted a reading list into a source document, complete with cover shots and brief synopses of the contents, I moved on to Amazon. I was not disappointed. I chose half a dozen titles of the ones that looked most promising and then clicked on the shopping cart.Next, I made arrangements to borrow my son’s DVD on the History Channel special on superheroes, and prepared a set of “This Book Belongs to” stickers to identify my personal holdings.

The books, I decided, would form the basis of student presentations. Students would select any essay of interest and share their insights with the class. For my part of the class, I would introduce the topic with background on the hero archetype and literary heroes, from ancient Greece to the Knights of the Roundtable to the present. I would then segue into the topic of comic book superheroes. When Superman burst into the comic book scene, he continued an honored tradition.

To accompany my lectures, I scoured the internet for the best Powerpoints and YouTube selections. Again, I found no shortage of materials to explore. I found readable explanations of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” checklists of what makes a hero, retellings of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, profiles of real life heroes of our times. I found course syllabi on studies of comic books and graphic novels and on how to write or draw comic book characters. I came across quizzes on superheroes, comic book museum websites, online e-books to add to my bibliography, and a site from which comic books could be downloaded for free. As I sifted through the material and prepared a list of Links to the Epics, the flow of the class began to take shape in my mind.

First, I would show the History Channel documentary on the origin and evolution of the comic book superhero, with an invitation to graduate student David Massuda to engage in an unscripted interview in the talk show format. Next day, I would give my literary tour de force, speculating along the way whether Jesus Christ fits into the archetype. Afterwards, the students would select their favorite superhero character from a galaxy of superheroes that I would post to a Wikii, and they would introduce their superhero with a brief Powerpoint presentation. After that, more presentations taken from the comic books themselves (each student will summarize three stories with an exercise in inductive reasoning: what pattern do you see emerging?). As I anticipated the session on comic book stories, another delightful idea came to mind: have students perform a dramatic re-enactment of a story from a script while the text is displayed on the screen. Next, another round of presentations on their hero’s involvement with socially relevant issues, and the glorious finale – a comprehensive paper accompanied by a presentation profiling their hero – his or her origin, creator, tag line, strengths and weaknesses, battles with foes, secret identity, sidekick, romantic involvements, changes over the years.And finally, a class discussion on how heroes inspire us to be our personal best; or, do we become so dependent on superheroes to rescue us that we diminish our own potential?

As I hummed the Superman theme song, posted the syllabus to Blackboard and arranged my colorful book collection on the ledge along the side of the room, I had a feeling I was going to learn a lot in this course—and along the way help make the study of comic books, once denounced by parents, teachers, and psychologists, a respectable enterprise.

Comic Book Superheros Course Syllabus – View document here.
Comic Book Superheros Course Bibliography – View document here.